Tag Archives: Sundance

“The Last Word”



The cool and natural chemistry between leads Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried is the main reason to see “The Last Word,” a female-centric buddy dramedy about creating your own meaningful legacy late in life. The two actors make a fantastic onscreen duo and they keep the contrived story enjoyable (or at least interesting).

MacLaine is Harriet, an overbearing, controlling, and generally unlikable woman facing the end of her life. When she realizes that she hasn’t exactly created a proud or newsworthy legacy, she enlists the help of young obituary writer Anne (Seyfried) to pen hers prematurely. In an attempt to make her own last-minute story relevant before she kicks the bucket, Harriet starts by finding a young “at risk” youth (AnnJewel Lee Dixon) to mentor.

Maclaine is fantastic as Harriet, and she sells the role with perfect, scowl-faced believability. Seyfried holds her own with another strong performance as a young woman who needs a good kick in the pants to awaken the ambition to live up to her full potential.

This feel-good indie movie is packed with genuine laughs, tear-jerking sentimentality, and bouts of mushy melodrama. While the story overall may be quite forced in its conventionality (you’ll see everything coming from a mile away), it doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Of course the nasty old hag finds her inner humanity by the end of the story, of course she touches and changes everyone’s lives for the better, and of course everything is wrapped up in an overly sentimental little bow, but no matter. Although the movie doesn’t exactly have much of an original voice, it still has a very big heart.


“Before I Fall”



It’s “Mean Girls” meets “Groundhog Day” in “Before I Fall,” a surprisingly thoughtful young adult drama based on the novel by Lauren Oliver. The story gives a fresh perspective on the familiar themes of self discovery, living your life to the fullest, and the potential of one single gesture to make a powerful difference in the world.

Samantha (Zoey Deutch) is a high school senior with a seemingly perfect life and bright future. She hangs with a popular pack of pretty girls (Halston Sage, Medalion Rahimi, and Cynthy Wu) who take pleasure in bullying reclusive weirdo Juliette (Elena Kampouris) because of the strange way she dresses and acts. On the way home from a party one night, she and her best friends get in a horrible car accident. The next morning, Samantha wakes up with a serious case of deja vu.

Sam soon realizes that she has become stuck in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day over and over until she finally gets it right. It’s unclear if she is dead or alive, but every single night the day reboots and she’s back in her bed, waiting to start again. No matter what she does the day always ends and restarts the same way. It’s a good concept that’s been done to death, but luckily this version of the stuck-in-Purgatory theme seems fresh and new.

So why is that the case? I give great credit to Deutch and her natural, organic, and effortless performance. Even though she hangs with some not so nice gal pals, you can’t help but instantly like her and feel a real connection. Another reason this film works is the surprisingly mature and strong screenplay (by Maria Maggenti). The characters are written with an honest sincerity, as we all knew kids just like this when we were in high school. They speak like real teens and they act like real teens, with the most superficial things taking center stage in their lives.

This would be a good film to watch with your tweens and teens as there is a lot of material that should encourage interesting discussions, from the damaging effects of cruel bullying to the responsibilities of being a young woman to dealing with peer pressure and semi-toxic friendships. I love that the movie respects its characters and its audience, which makes it rise above the rest.

That’s not to say that it’s flawless, however. There’s a little too much filler, with repetitive scenes of teen girls singing along to the radio, putting on makeup and hanging out. The film could stand to lose at least fifteen minutes of superfluous padding, which was unnecessary in the first place because the story is so compelling and the script is so well written.

Still, there are quite a few refreshing revelations and twists to the story and a great (if startling) ending that’s not a letdown (even though the lesson is probably one that you’ll see coming from a mile away).

“Before I Fall” is a reminder that high school is torture and being a teenager really, really sucks. I am surprised at how good this movie is.

Sundance Review: “Raw”



A lot of fuss is being made about “Raw,” a twisted and dark French horror film about shy vegetarian teen Justine (Garance Marillier) who, after a bizarre rabbit kidney eating hazing ritual at a veterinary school, finds herself with an uncontrollable craving for meat. It’s an amusing premise for a movie, but I wouldn’t really classify this as a true horror film. Yes, the movie features graphic cannibalism and unforgiving close-ups of gross-out flesh chewing, but it’s more horrifically funny than truly suspenseful and terrifying. Think of it as more arty exploitation than true horror.

Marillier is perfectly cast in the lead role, bringing the perfect mix of innocent and crazy. In fact, she’s pretty damn fantastic and carries the film with a fearless feminist spirit. The same goes for Ella Rumpf (as her sister Alexia). The two are completely believable as sisters with a relationship that will become, over the course of the film, a bit more…complicated.

There’s a refreshingly unique female perspective to the film, with deeper themes that explore the agony and ecstasy of becoming a woman and the complications that sometimes arise between sisters and familial relationships. Writer / director Julia Ducournau handles the material with a confident ease, not an easy task when you’re at the helm of a disturbing coming of age tale where your heroine discovers her budding sexuality in what can only be described as a carnal as well as a carnivorous awakening.

Setting the film in a veterinary school seems pointless and wasted for the most part. Justine’s rabid desires may play well off the setting, but there are far too many odd directorial choices that go nowhere, like a slow motion scene of a horse running on a treadmill. It’s visually stunning, but serves no purpose to the story — not even as a relevant metaphor. There are so many animalistic qualities that aren’t fully realized or explored (except for a brilliant scene where Alexia takes Justine to teach her to hunt like a predator schooling her young, where drivers on a nearby highway make for easy prey).

The setting also makes this movie not such a great choice for animal lovers, as I had to shut my eyes in many scenes. While I couldn’t watch the nauseatingly detailed dog autopsies and horse surgery, I had no problem with the gruesome human cannibalism scenes — and I’m not sure what this disturbing fact says about my psyche. This also is not a film for the squeamish. Trust me on this.

Justine’s introduction to cannibalism — her cannibal origin story, if you will — is pretty funny and is scored with some killer (ha!) original music. There are lots of cringe-worthy and macabre scenes, including an unforgettable sequence with an at-home Brazilian wax gone wrong. Very wrong.

To stretch the film’s runtime, the director adds in a few too many party scenes that feel much like pointless filler. Ducournau has a great artistic eye and a clear vision, but some of the pieces don’t quite work as they should (like a slow motion early morning walk of shame across the school’s campus). The idea had to look great on paper but it doesn’t translate well to film.

“Raw” very much reminds me of Yorgos Lathimos’ films, especially “Dogtooth,” in tone and style. It’s the kind of disgustingly funny movie where you will be unsure if you should laugh or vomit.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Bushwick”



Some of the best truly independent films start out with the simple question of “what if?” In “Bushwick,” Texas militia forces invade a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York as the state attempts to secede from the United States and a civil war is breaking out across the country.

It’s a fun premise and is done extremely well, especially on a shoestring budget. There’s not a lot of new ground covered here and the film is far from original, but co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have a good eye for staging exciting action and chase sequences (the final shootout in a park is incredibly well done, staged with long, fluid takes). In fact, I loved that the entire movie was filled with smooth, almost elegant shots instead of the obnoxious and annoying shaky-cam that dominates so many big studio action films.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of predictable running and hiding, blood and gunshots, yelling and CGI explosions, but the gimmick of having a camera follow the action from behind like a participant rather an observer, works. While making sure the audience feels like part of the action, it also serves as a distraction from the realization that there’s not much plot to the story.

Lucy (Brittany Snow) is a college student who steps out of the subway and into a war zone. While running to seek shelter, she ducks into a bunker of burly and tough ex-Marine Stupe (Dave Bautista). The two play well enough off each other, and they are saddled with plenty of simplistic and lame dialogue. The amateurism acting is reminiscent of a high school drama production (at one point you can visibly see an actor who’s supposed to be playing dead breathing), but it really doesn’t matter.

There’s just the right amount of action and humor peppered throughout, making “Bushwick” a worthy companion to similar films like “Attack the Block” and “Cloverfield.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “The Discovery”



“The Discovery” hooks you in with a fantastic and shocking opening scene, one that is so compelling that it grossly misleads you as to what is to come in this boring, emotionless, and utterly sluggish movie. It’s the kind of film that you’ll start to watch with some enthusiasm but then shut it off within the first 15 minutes.  It’s obvious the filmmakers think they’ve made some profound work of art, but this movie isn’t nearly as important nor impressive as their boasting would suggest.

When a scientist (Robert Redford) proves the existence of an afterlife, the world’s suicide rate skyrockets. His son (Jason Segel) develops an attraction to a mysterious woman (Rooney Mara) and the pair go to live in his dad’s science-minded mansion. The film plays with time and alternate universes, and leaves too many questions unanswered.

The reason I think I really hated this movie is that it’s so full of itself; so much so that you can practically feel the massive egos of the writer and director leaping off the screen and proceeding to beat the audience over the head.

It’s sloppily directed by Charlie McDowell, a disjointed disarray that reminds me of a rip-off of the far superior “Flatliners,” “Another Earth,” and “Groundhog Day.” After viewing this movie, it’s clear that alternate reality timelines are best left to more competent writers and directors like Brit Marling and Christopher Nolan. The non-cohesive story is maddening (with a twist ending that is a guaranteed frustrating letdown), the writing (by McDowell and Justin Lader) is on a fifth grade level with a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing,’ and the characters are all kept at a distance, leading to zero emotional connection with any of them. The characters’ motivations are unclear at best, nonsensical at worst. There’s an unbelievable love story between leads Segel and Mara, their chemistry altogether absent.

Instead of taking the time and care to craft an astute, meaningful story about the existence of an afterlife, the screenplay takes the lazy route and dismisses anything and everything remotely interesting. Why not explore the religious and moral implications of such a scientific discovery? Oh, that’s right: it would take far too much work and thought to do so! Not only is the content tired, but the drab, dreary cinematography is also ugly and the movie looks terrible. The same goes for the wildly uneven original score.

This movie made me so angry that I can only compare it to the cinematic equivalent of one massive eye roll.


“The Discovery” irritated me more than any movie in recent memory, largely due to the self-important attitude of director Charlie McDowell, who was on hand to answer questions during a recent screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

According to McDowell, he has made an important movie that explores complex and interesting questions of morality that have gained new urgency in the face of Trump’s America. That wasn’t the movie I saw. Apparently, having everyone at a film festival tell you how brilliant you are for 10 days straight will go to your head. It certainly went to his.

In “The Discovery” Jason Segel is Will Harbor, the son of acclaimed scientist Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford). The senior Harbor has made a life-changing discovery that has changed the face of humankind: he has proven, scientifically and without a doubt, that the human consciousness continues to exist after death on some alternate plane of existence. This discovery has led to a massive amount of suicides across the world, as people look to escape their problems in this world and seek an opportunity to exist somewhere else. Will, who is estranged from his father, returns home to his dad’s compound where Thomas continues his research to answer the remaining question: what comes next?

Admittedly, it’s a fascinating premise. It raises many interesting questions: is suicide moral when we know that death is not the end? And, more importantly, when will people start determining to take a step beyond suicide and actually murder someone else with the intention of sending them to a hoped-for better place? Is murder ever acceptable, or moral, under those circumstances? And what about the effect of the discovery on religion? Does the certainty of continuing to exist after death make it more or less likely that religion will play an important role in people’s lives? Do more or fewer people start attending church after the discovery?

These are all great questions that are raised by the film’s premise. But it doesn’t seriously explore any of them. Instead, the story which focuses largely on Will and his relationship with Isla (Rooney Mara), a mysterious woman that Will meets on a ferry boat. Will and Isla have absolutely zero chemistry – both due to their poorly-written characters and the attention of the actors – and this lack of believability in their relationship completely poisons the movie and everything that follows. We are supposed to believe that Will’s feelings for Isla somehow motivate him, but we can’t. And what’s worse is that when the film takes a violent turn, the characters’ motivations remain similarly baffling, even after the screenwriters (McDowell and Justin Lader) have tried to explain them.

“The Discovery” is a nonsensical movie that is one of the most shameful wastes of a great premise since “Be Kind Rewind” and “Unleashed.”

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Bad Day for the Cut”



Revenge thrillers can be repetitive and unoriginal, and “Bad Day for the Cut” is as bland as they come. In an obvious (and lame) rip-off to the far superior “Blue Ruin,” the film seems to confuse nasty, bloody violence with and interesting and feasible plot.

Donal (Nigel O’Neill) is a simple farmer who, after a night of drinking, wakes up to find his elderly mother lying dead in her living room. Shocked by this brutal murder, Donal sets off to find those responsible — and leaves a bloodbath and a pile of bodies in his wake. Clues slowly unravel that answer the mystery as to why his elderly mother was brutally murdered (the answer is a real letdown and the payoff an anticlimactic disappointment).

This has been described as a slow burn Irish revenge thriller, yet I didn’t find the pacing slow at all. The issue is that the bad guy (actually a bad girl, overacted to the point of pronounced yelling by Susan Lynch) is uninteresting; even her motivation for murder is foolish and laughable. In fact, she’s one of the worst cinematic bad guys I’ve ever seen. Luckily O’Neill saves the acting portion of the film, showing a quiet, vigilante rage of a man with a serious grudge and nothing to lose. There’s also a nicely understated performance from Józef Pawlowski as Donal’s would-be assassin and unlikely partner.

The film is super violent, bloody, and has a considerable amount of realistic, brutal savagery that fans of the genre will at least appreciate. It’s hard to ruin a good revenge film, but the real problem is that “Bad Day for the Cut” is just nothing special. There’s no reason to watch this international indie over a run-of-the-mill, big budget studio blockbuster. It’s just as forgettable as any mundane U.S. crime film that you (can’t) remember.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “The Little Hours”



I really wanted to love “The Little Hours,” the latest film from “Life After Beth” and “Joshy” director Jeff Baena. He has a sense of humor that directly mirrors mine and when I heard that he was tackling a religious themed comedy based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic literary text “The Decameron” as his next project, I was sold. Unfortunately, the film aimlessly wanders around the screen in a cloudy haze of expletives for two hours instead of being something truly special.

The film is full of talented, funny comic actors but they just don’t have great material to work with. We first meet Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), and Sister Genevra (Kate Micucci) quietly going about their daily routine. When the gardener wishes them a good morning, they turn violent, verbally abusing him with an f-bomb laced tirade, throwing turnips at his face, and spitting at him. A group of nasty, rude and cursing nuns is a funny premise for sure, but this one-note joke gets stretched over the entire course of the film and quickly becomes repetitive (and rapidly loses its humor).

Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) runs the convent with Father Tommasso  (John C. Reilly, the true scene stealer in the film). After a chance encounter in the woods, Tommasso crosses paths with runaway servant Massetto (Dave Franco), a man who has been kicked out of his master’s (Nick Offerman) castle for schtupping the lady of the house. Father Tommasso drunkenly laments that he ran out of water and “had to drink the sacramental wine,” and comes up with the grand idea to invite Massetto  back to live with and work for him. Once Massetto arrives he grabs the attention of the sexually repressed, bi-curious nuns, and they scheme to seduce the new farmhand by any means necessary.

While it’s not an original idea to take a classic piece of literature and put a modern spin on the story, there are some truly hilarious concepts at play, including several riotous confession scenes that will no doubt be memorable long after you see the movie. Although the film is set in a 14th century Italian convent, the trio of bad nuns speak in modern slang and give in to their uncontrollable carnal desires, habit be damned.

The film is off-color, bawdy, and seems hell-bent with determination to push the buttons of the devout. I’m not a religious person (nor am I a prude) but I did find many of the jokes, at the expense of Catholics in particular, for the most part only mildly humorous. The film wants to be a screwball comedy but it just gets too weird too fast — and it’s not the good kind of weird. There are several orgy scenes (including what are basically attempted rapes), a bizarre subplot about a coven of witches (who take to nude dancing around a woodland fire), and a laundry list of curse words that would make a sailor blush.

The entire project feels as if it’s raunchy solely for the sake of being raunchy, and I wanted so much more.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Thoroughbred”



“Thoroughbred” opens with a scene that on the surface seems fairly tame — a teenage girl stares deeply into the eyes of her horse while petting his head. As the camera lingers, unflinching, for several minutes, things start to get really uncomfortable. Suddenly there’s a cut to a backpack being unzipped and a large knife being removed. We never see what happens after that, but it’s not too difficult to guess. The audience eventually learns what happened in that barn through a vivid vocal description, but we never see it. We don’t have to. Simply imagining the horrors is torture enough.

That’s where this film, based on a stage play by the writer / director Cory Finley, excels. Finley is great at tension building in the most basic of ways. It’s a skillful homage to the Alfred Hitchcock school of filmmaking where sometimes the reactions of the characters and the imagination of the audience can be scarier than showing the actual grisly details. There’s an intense scene with a computer and gruesome animal cruelty photos — I had such a physical reaction to the stressors that I had to look away, although we never see what’s happening on the laptop screen and the bloody photos are never shown. This tactic is used again later in the film to a startling, alarming effect, and becomes one of the film’s most well executed and shocking set pieces.

The film is pointlessly told in four chapters and since it is based on a play, it’s dialogue heavy and at times feels more like a stage production than a movie. Luckily Finley has a knack for visual flair and is proficient at building tension with a camera. The film has an unsettling drum heavy score that casts an eerie, ominous feeling, and the cool aloofness of the performances from leads Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily) and Olivia Cooke (Amanda) fits the material just right. There’s a great out of character turn from the late Anton Yelchin (to whom the film is dedicated) as a low-level drug dealer, sex offender, would-be murderer, and aspiring dreamer.

The story revolves around two pretty, rich white girls with serious mental issues. After one is accused of animal cruelty for killing her horse and the other snaps when her step dad (Paul Sparks) announces that he’s sending her away to a boarding school for troubled girls, these psychopathic teenagers decide to plot his murder. There are hints that Lily’s step dad is sexually abusing her, and he is introduced in a creepy, sinister fashion. It’s only later that we realize the truth: that these are superficial problems of the elite and amount to little more than a serious case of teen angst.

The majority of “Thoroughbred” is pretty fantastic. Too bad the director had to go and spoil it with a tacked on, irrelevant epilogue. I completely understand the director’s desire to keep the final scene in the movie, but only because the film’s last line is pretty great. It is a fantastic way to verbally close the film, but I would have preferred that the story end at Chapter 4 rather than with this extraneous scene. It really hurts the tone of the movie and the ending all but ruined it for me.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Bitch”



“Bitch” is the very definition of a truly independent, super low budget film, and it’s incredible how much was done with so little money (especially the stunning lighting and visuals). Director Marianna Palka creates a provocative, highly disturbing and deeply unsettling pseudo-horror film with this feminist tinged tale of a suburban mom gone crazy.

Palka plays the lead role of Jill, a mentally distraught and suicidal housewife with a practically useless workaholic (and cheating) husband, Bill (Jason Ritter). Jill can barely function from day to day and becomes obsessed with a dog that constantly stares at her from the front law. When Jill finally loses it and assumes the characteristics of a vicious dog, Bill is left in charge of the household duties and their four children. He enlists the help of sister in law (Jaime King) to try to keep his family life afloat and prevent the total destruction of his slowly crumbling family.

Ritter gives a fantastic leading man quality performance here, and one that’s laced with angst and tragedy as well as comedy. You can feel his desperation and frustration, yet he manages to be sympathetic and tender when necessary, even when some of the screenwriting fails him. Palka is believable as a mom who finally reaches her breaking point and cracks under the pressure. Plus, it’s not easy to spend most of the film on your knees and covered in fake feces.

There’s a heavy reliance placed on the soundtrack to this movie, and it’s as strange and intense as they come. The random background sound effects, noises and music is what I can only describe as “ear assaulting.” It’s intensely loud on purpose, with an absurdist, almost avante garde original score that features a literal cacophony of drums, slide whistles, cartoonish blips and bleeps, and 1950s-era spaceship special effect sounds. By the time the end credits rolled, I felt like I was becoming as unhinged as the lead character and my ears were aching. That may be the point, but it was distracting because it was literally painful.

The film is distressing with its surrealism, but also painful and tragic. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind original that will make you laugh with its shock humor, but the story eventually becomes a serious exploration of mental illness and gets dark really quickly. Love and acceptance finally become the cure for Jill’s pain, but it doesn’t make the film any more unsettling.

Forget the stresses of being a mother and a wife: simply being a woman is a full time job that will drive you crazy.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Review: “Landline”



In a crowded sea of male-dominated Hollywood films and paper-thin female characters, little independent gems like “Landline” generate even more of an electrifying spark. Writer / director Gillian Robespierre follows up her abortion dramedy “Obvious Child” (which earned an Honorable Mention on my Top 10 Movies of 2014 list) with a look at a dysfunctional Manhattan family that bonds over lying and cheating.

The film is set in 1995 and features many intermittent references to the time period, from smoke-filled bars to record stores with cd listening stations to a discussion about Helen Hunt’s unfortunate wardrobe choices on “Mad About You.” The pre-cell phone era setting isn’t exactly crucial in order to tell the story, but it manages to work without being gimmicky at all. It actually makes perfect sense as a method of taking social media and 24/7 connectivity out of the equation, even if the film does feature the prerequisite car singalong to a pop hit from the era (in this case, it’s appropriately Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”).

Dana (Jenny Slate, in what is easily one of the best performances of her career) and her sweetly devoted fiancée Ben (Jay Duplass) are dealing with their own twentysomething relationship issues while mom and dad (an excellent John Turturro and Edie Falco) are wrapped up in their own accusations of cheating and falling out of love. Dana’s high school senior sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is a rebellious, drug experimenting teen suffering through the trials of impending adulthood and the struggles of becoming her own person. The family may be flawed as individuals and as a whole, but their doubts and insecurities are what makes them endearing and all the more human.

Robespierre and her co-writer Elisabeth Holm have a beautiful knack for penning honest, credible and fully realized characters, especially when it comes to women. I haven’t seen such a great representation (or understanding) of the female psyche in a movie in a long time, and the script rings with an eye-opening truth that shines a light into the relationships we have between lovers, friends and family. These are complex, fully developed characters that provide remarkable insight, and their organic (and sometimes raunchy) dialogue speaks the truth — no matter how painful that may be.

The movie is at times very funny yet also surprisingly tender with a slightly subversive feel. It’s an accurate, realistic exploration of how family bonds grow stronger through the cheating, lying and discord that is life.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.